Children of combat-deployed parents portray increased anxiety with symptoms persisting even after return of the parent, an American study has revealed.
UCLA assistant professor of psychiatry Dr. Patricia Lester and her team found that it is the number and length of repeated deployments that cause higher levels of anxiety in children and that this anxiety persists even after the deployed parent returns home.
They also saw that the level of anxiety children experience can be predicted by the amount of psychological distress shown by both the active-duty parent and the at-home parent.
Lester and her team studied 171 families in which either the mother or father was on active duty, currently deployed or recently returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Of the sample, the active-duty parent had, on average, been deployed more than twice and had been away from home for 16 months.
They found that approximately one-third of the children in these families had increased symptoms of anxiety. Strikingly, the anxiety remained even after the deployed parent returned home.
Lester said: "It's known that, in general, a child's level of distress is linked to parental distress.
"Here, we found that approximately one-third of the at-home parents and almost 40 percent of the recently returned deployed parents showed elevations in anxiety and depression.
"We also found that the at-home parent showed higher levels of anxiety when their spouse was deployed. But the two key markers for anxiety in the child were the distress levels of both parents and the number of months a parent had been deployed during the child's lifetime."
Interestingly, the study suggests that school-aged boys and girls behave differently during and after a parent's deployment.
Girls showed an increase in acting out and disruptive behavior when the parent was deployed, while boys appeared to have more difficulties after the deployed parent returned.
Lester said: "For the boys, this may be related to reduced autonomy and increased structure in the family life upon the return of the deployed parent."
Notably, the children also showed indices of resilience, and their experiences of other types of emotional and behavioural problems were comparable to what is seen normally within any general community of kids.
Lester noted that the military demographic in the U.S. has changed in the past several decades to include a much larger proportion of service members with families.
She said planning is needed for extended military operations to take into account the impact on family members.
Lester said: "These findings suggest that there is a cumulative wear and tear upon the military family from multiple deployments during wartime."
The research has appeared in the April edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.